Analysis of skeletons from a Dominican friary in Exeter has revealed new information about medieval arrow injuries.

The cranium bearing evidence of an arrow wound: the white line indicates the trajectory of the arrow as it entered and exited the skull. [Image: Oliver Creighton]

Human remains with signs of arrow wounds were found in a burial ground associated with a 13th-century friary that was excavated by Exeter Archaeology between 1997 and 2007 as part of a construction project in Princesshay, Exeter city centre. A study of the bones by a team at the University of Exeter has now been published in The Antiquaries Journal (https://doi.org/10.1017/S0003581520000116).

The team examined 22 bone fragments and three teeth, which were part of a collection of disarticulated remains bearing evidence of traumatic injuries at or around the time of death. It appears that these individuals may have died in battle, and that their bones were moved from their original burial location to the consecrated ground of the cemetery at a later date, which would explain their state of disarticulation.

The majority of the injuries identified are the result of fractures probably related to longbow attacks, making this an important discovery, as evidence of arrow trauma in medieval burials is extremely rare. The wounds include a cranium with a puncture wound at the front of the skull and an exit wound at the back, and a right tibia where an arrow appears to have passed through the lower leg from behind before becoming lodged in the bone. The radiocarbon dates for these bones do not overlap, with the cranium dating to AD 1405-1477, while the tibia dates to AD 1284-1395, indicating that these individuals were killed by traumatic arrow wounds in two different periods.

Analysis of these injuries has shed new light on medieval archery, revealing that the arrowheads used were likely to be of a ‘bodkin’ type with a square or diamond-shaped section, specifically designed to pierce armour. This reinforces the likelihood that the individuals were killed in battle, and helps to answer long-held questions about the efficacy of the English longbow against armoured opponents. The pattern of fracturing on the bones also provides tentative evidence that the arrows might have been fletched to spin clockwise as they hit, producing injuries similar to modern gunshot wounds, as rifle barrels are designed to make bullets spin in the same direction.


This news article appears in issue 365 of Current Archaeology. To find out more about subscribing to the magazine, click here.

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